Making Tuition


Another short story, slightly longer than the previous one. Also part of the screenplay/novel. Enjoy…

I’m sitting in one of the classes inside the English department building on the south campus of NYU. It’s late morning, but that doesn’t prevent many stifled yawns. Most are slumped and generally unkempt, including me, but attentive in that pseudo-intellectual, undergraduate way. I’m not sure how I’m going to manage tuition this semester, much less stomach the antics of frat boys and sorority princesses. The smell of draft beer still stems from the pores of the guy sitting next to me.

British poetry, and we’re in the latter end of the semester. The professor wants to create a graduate aura, so we are sitting on desks arranged in semi-circle. “We are all scholars and equals,” and that sort of nonsense. Each has a stack of books piled on our desk, the “Used” stickers, in various colors, sizes, and conditions, boldly face their consumers as a symbol of subculture. Our graying, still hot professor is propped on top of his desk, facing the class. He strokes his chin in thought like a parody of his profession. Looking at each of us in turn, he drums his fingers against the open page of Keats: Collected Poems and Letters.

“Why do you think Keats wrote women as agents of destruction?”

The class avoids making eye contact with him. Many delve back into the text in search of a witty response.

Professor Abel prompts further.

“Take into consideration the last assigned poem, La Belle Dame sans Merci, for instance. Look at the way she seduced the knight, then rendered him a ghost.”

Blake, the quintessential quiet kid in the corner, musters up the courage.

“Well, I’m not sure, but—“

“Don’t qualify your answer, Blake, just give it.” Abel is anything but coddling.

Blake exhales nervously, visibly regretting his self-imposed martyrdom.

“I think Fanny Brawne made him that way.”

The class reacts with ill-concealed dissent. The girl across from me visibly rolls her eyes and scoffs. But Abel seems interested.

“I see. So you think Fanny Brawne was to blame for Keats’s misogynistic tendencies?”

Blake scrambles to re-direct his inadequacy.

“Not directly, no. And certainly not intentionally. I just think that—maybe—Keats couldn’t handle his feelings for her. You know, sleeping in the next room and not being able to touch her. It must’ve been unbelievably frustrating.”

Some students lean back to consider this.

At the penultimate word his gaze shifts momentarily to Cam, sitting next to him, and then back to his laptop screen.

Cam was short for Cameron. She was the prototypical college boy’s wet dream. Thick strawberry blond hair that cascaded in artful waves against her chest. Actually enjoyed Monday night football and quipped with the best of them who the next draft pick should be. Snorted white lines like a genuine cocaine cowgirl. In short, a girl that practically patented the effortless cool.

Cam bites her lip as she looks at Blake. He sees her and swallows hard. Then she looks at Abel with a smirk plastered to her face.

“Personally, I think he was tripping off all that laudanum.”

Class laughs on cue.

Abel betrays a smile while shaking his head.

“Alright, alright. Ever since Mark and Courtney gave that presentation on Keats’s unfortunate affair with opiate derivatives, the general consensus has been that he wrote everything on a bad trip.”

Several in the class guffaw.

Mark quips, “You got that right,” then directs his response to Abel.

“Well, doc, it does explain a lot. C’mon. Ode on Indolence? It’s like reading a junkie’s journal. If they were awake long enough to write, that is.”

Again the class erupts into gratuitous laughter. What a mindless herd, I think. Meanwhile I am writing feverishly in my notebook, transcribing some lines from the ode by memory, whispering as I write: “how is it shadows, that I knew ye not? How came ye muffled in so hush a masque?…benumb’d my eyes; my pulse grew less and less…” It’s always been a strange habit with me—whispering to myself. I’m startled out of my audible transcriptions when Abel calls on me.

“And you, Margot? What are your thoughts?”

He raises an eyebrow, expressly looking in the direction of my notebook. I stifle a gasp and try to wet the inside of my mouth but my tongue is suddenly parched. Stupidly, I look to both directions for an escape route, or maybe as a silent plea for someone to jump to my rescue. No such luck. I purse my lips and look down at my writing, which doesn’t help at all.

“I—uh, think whatever Keats had inside of him was more powerful than any drug.”

Bullshit, but the class sobers. Though some roll their eyes. Just then, Abel gets a phone call. He looks briefly at his phone, fully intending to ignore it, but a wave of fearful recognition passes over his features and he pales.

“Sorry everyone. I’ve, uh, really got to take this.”

He goes outside to take the call. The door latch is broken and allows to overhear his conversation, but no one is interested. Something compels me to listen in, but the whispering between Mark and Cam forecloses any possibility of eavesdropping on Abel.

“So, you going tonight?” says Mark.


Mark presses.


Cam whispers something muffled in Mark’s ear. As soon as she is finished, Mark abruptly leans away from her, voice rising.

“Oh, no. Not that. You said we wouldn’t have to anymore.”

Some ears, including mine, perk up like Meer cats.

“Keep your goddamn voice down!” Cam hisses.

Mark looks at her in consternation. Cam looks to her sides, but everyone is back in discussion about the odes and acid trips. Everyone except me, who is ostensibly trying to bore a hole in the middle of my desk. She returns to meet Mark’s gaze and furrows her eyebrows. She takes the notebook off his desk and I’m able to glean her large, slanted, hurried letters: “It won’t be someone you know this time.” She passes it to Mark. Mark reads and studies her. She rolls her eyes, takes back the notebook, and adds: “Promise.” Mark chews at his bottom lip. Cam narrows her eyes, frustrated with his hesitation. In her large, confident penmanship, she adds: “You’re acting like someone who has a choice.” Mark looks up at her in undisguised dread and she just arches her eyebrows. Finally, looking down at his desk, he nods. The chatter from the class, previously reduced to the background, presently seems to rise.

The guy a few desks down nods eagerly.

“Mine’s was a bad trip. I thought the piss on the floors of the club restroom was sodium hydroxide. It’s like it had a mind of its own, coming to melt my flesh. I ran out of there so fast I didn’t even have time to zip up my pants.” He chuckled. “My boys thought I had gotten some.”

The girl next to him looked confused.

“What the hell is sodium hydroxide? An acid or something?”

“Actually it’s a base. Saw it on a show once. Mix it up with some water and throw it on a corpse. In a few minutes, all you’ll have is something resembling horseshit, and smelling worse. Totally unidentifiable.”

Something compels me to look at Cam at that moment. My intuition is rewarded.

She raises an eyebrow at Mark, evidently interested. He looks back at her uneasily. My mind started to unravel the knots of possibility that brief exchange just tied. What was she involved in? Whatever it was, it was enough to emasculate Mark’s frat boy pretenses, so it must’ve been heavy. I needed some air. I ripped out and crumpled a page from my notebook and shuffled out of my seat. As I do, I get that prescient feeling that someone’s gaze is on me. I look back quickly, and see it’s Cam. Only she doesn’t turn away as most people would, she merely smirks at my discovery. My face burns as I find my way back to my desk.

Abel re-enters the class, looking at his watch.

“All right, everyone, it’s that time. I know you’re devastated,” he adds in mock regret. “Make sure you finish the Odes and a reflection paper on one of your choosing by next class.”

The class files out. Some hang back for predictable extracurricular planning. As I debate whether I should ask Abel a nagging question about one of the Odes, everyone has shuffled out and I decide to leave it for an email. Emails are my preferred method of contact with people that are much smarter than me; it makes me feel less inadequate since I can deliberate on my diction for a quarter of an hour before hitting send. As the door closes behind me I realize that I’m actually the second last to go. Cam is still in there. For once, I sing praises to the University Commission that opts for board member kickbacks instead of fixing the facilities. I squint to see through the sliver in the door frame.

Cam bends over to pick up something that she probably knocked over in the first place. The neckline on her airy tank is, of course, low enough to reveal her snug fitting pink bra. She purrs in faux innocuousness.

“How long do you want that paper, again?”

Abel is making himself busy with the papers sticking out of his tattered books, but the bra was not lost on him.

“As long as an effective argument calls for.”

Cam turns up the smug factor as only she can.

“Well, you know how pithy I can be—”

Abel seems amused but wary. “Go on! Don’t show up with a paragraph or I’ll drop you from the course.”

“Sure thing, Doc,” Cam says, grinning. As she squeezes past the desk where Abel is standing, she intentionally brushes her breasts along his back.

“Oops. ‘Scuse me.”

Cam is the kind of predator you can’t help but watch, enraptured. Abel goes rigid but says nothing. The last thing I see as Cam walks in my direction is Abel furrowing his eyebrows and smoothing his paisley tie in an effort to recompose himself. I turn the corner just as Cam pushes the door open and slinks out in her glorious “fuck-me” stride. I am still reeling with my bewilderment when she stops abruptly, about fifty paces from me, and turns in my direction. She looks directly at me, but I cannot read her usually transparent expression. I am rooted to the spot. She walks toward me in an uncharacteristically neutral gait. Standing in front of me now, she studies my features at leisure.

“Listen, I was wondering – do you have something in mind for the group project on Keats? Like, are you working with someone yet?”

There is detectable condescension in the tone of this last question, which is meant more as a formality than anything else. I bristle a bit.

“No, but I was thinking I would just ask him if it’s okay to work alone. It tends to be better for everyone that way.”

Cam waves off the rejection like a winged pestilence.

“Oh c’mon! I never see you talking to anyone. It’d be good for you. Plus, I haven’t read so much as a sonnet all semester.”

“Keats didn’t write sonnets.”

“You’re missing the point, Margot. The point is, we can help each other out.”

I consider a not-so-subtle reply, like walking away, but then I remember her earlier conversation with Mark.

“Fine. Where and when?”

“Coffee shop on the south side of campus. Noon tomorrow.”

I nod and turn to go. Her voice stops me again.

“By the way, me and Mark…we’re heading over to Clap tonight…you know, the place in Williamsburg…”

She spoke slowly, making sure I’d get all the details. Had she noticed me reading their notes?

“Can you can make it?”

The more dignified part of me that wants to say no, fails miserably.


As soon as I give in to her, she disengages.

“See you tonight. Say my name at the door,” she adds, already halfway down the hall. She disappears behind a corner and all at once, I hear the gaggling of people all around me. Had they been there this whole time?


I’m mildly dolled-up, at the club in Williamsburg. I’ve gotten past the bouncers and I spot Cam. She’s wearing a silver sequin top, cropped right below the bust, along with tight black jeans. Just like after class, she somehow catches me looking at her and turns to face me. She waves me over with her erotically charged smile. Anything but reassuring, it feels like she’s going to eat you alive. The music is pounding, a combination of indie punk and techno. Wall to wall–it’s crammed. I have to squeeze through a series of gaping guys and girls who reluctantly move aside for me. The club has a kind of Shoreditch hipster vibe to it, where everyone exhibits the kind of modern sprezzatura that allows you to wear a $40skinny tie and still appear indifferent. Treading leisurely down the dim hallway like she’s in her house, Cam indicates a space for me right by Mark. He looks at me and smiles in a way he’s never done before. Must be the alcohol. Cam stops by some people lounging on the adjacent couch with a few bottles of gin on ice in the center table. A couple of them are smoking menthols and have a sleepy disposition towards everything. Two newbies are looking antsy, watching the writhing crowd below spilling drinks while attempting to dance. They are both wearing, with only the slightest variation, The Bandage Black Dress—the one so short and stretchy it hardly allows one to dance but gets the right kind of male attention, which, in their cases, clearly takes precedence over comfort. Their heels, in keeping with their dresses, can best be described as impossible. Cam smiles wanly at the sight of them as she sits down between them. They are surprised by this intrusion, but Mark quickly introduces them.

“Girls, this is Cam. She tends to pop in out of nowhere.”

As he says so, he gives Cam a knowing smile and a wink before returning to his drink and self-deference. He ostensibly leaves their names out of the introduction. The girls are now smiling up at Cam, not even noticing the omission.

“You girls smell great, like vodka and bubble gum. What are you wearing?”

Girl One seems all too eager in what is apparently her area of expertise.

“Something by Vera Wang. “Princess,” I think it is?”

A look passes between Cam and me, and just like that, we’re confidants—at least for the time being. Cam sidles over to me and whispers in my ear, “Figures.” Her warm breath makes my follicles stand in alert. How can she do that? Then, returning her attention to the girls with faux delight, she says, “You wanna dance?” Girl One nods maniacally and Girl Two exclaims, “Oh-my-God, we’ve been dying to get out there!”

Cam rises indolently, grabbing my hand as she does so. The girls are already teetering down the steps like drunken flamingos. The four of us enter the fray of thrashing bodies, dodging bouncing behinds and flailing arms to find an adequate space.

Cam starts dancing with the girls to some fast rhythm, gyrating and pumping, sandwiched in between them, when a well-dressed young man approaches. Just as he does, the song transitions to a slower beat. His hair is closely cropped and light brown eyes twinkle in sharp contrast to his dark olive skin. His friends are already there to take care of the two girls, and me, though I less-than-politely decline. He asks Cam with his eyes, and encircles her waist. She makes her body pliable to his as they start dancing. I remain close and listen in.

“I hate to go for the obvious, but what’s your name?”

He means to purr in her ear, but with the music so loud it’s more like a scream.

“Isabella,” Cam lies smoothly.

“Don’t you want to know mine?”

Cam laughs blithely. “Sure. Why not?”

He seems to enjoy her irreverence. “Arihant.”

Cam looks genuinely interested, for once. “Is that Hindi? What does it mean?”

Arihant matches her earlier laughter. “Now look who’s predictable?”

Cam playfully narrows her eyes at him.

Arihant smiles and presses her closer. “One who has killed his enemies.”

Cam raises her eyebrows. Then, catching me off guard once again, she leans over and whispers, “We’ll see,” to me as if I’d been part of the conversation all along. What was she playing at? How did I turn into her unlikely ally?

“Did you say something?” Arihant asks her.

Cam smiles reassuringly. “No, nothing.”

She looks over to the two girls and sees they are in consensually binding positions similar to her own. Smiling again, she glances at her friends on the couch and catches Mark’s eye. He has been looking at her the entire time. She gives him an almost imperceptible nod, which he returns. He doesn’t seem to notice that I am privy to the whole exchange, or else doesn’t care. Taking a small baggy from his pocket, he slips it into one of the mixed drinks on the table. The powder turns the liquid a blackberry red for a few seconds, before returning to its original color. The song starts coming to a close. Cam grabs Arihant’s face and slowly kisses him, just enough to leave prospects dangling. As the kiss progresses, slowly, the last third of “Tricksy” by Lark is amplified.

“Come. Have a drink with us.” She includes me in this proposition by tenderly tucking a loose strand of hair behind my ear. Arihant looks at both of us appreciatively and nods his assent. She leads us by the hand to the table where Mark is. When she arrives, she ducks down and whispers into Mark’s ear.

“I’m Isabella tonight. We got ourselves a live one.”

Mark laughs.

Immediately I notice the change in Mark as he introduces himself to Arihant. He is playing the colorfully gay friend.

“You two were quite the item on the dance floor.” He stops to cross his legs and then remembers something. “Oh my God, I just had this brought out, (indicating a drink) but as you can see, I’m already done for!” He laughs and slaps Cam’s thigh for emphasis. “Ahh-ree-hant,” he over-stresses every syllable, “Do me the honor. You do like G&T’s, don’t you?”

“Not my first choice, but a close second. Thanks.”

Arihant takes the drink and raises it in cheers, taking a generous gulp. Cam and Mark smile at one another knowingly, then Cam includes me in their web with a long-lashed wink.

She knew I couldn’t—didn’t want to—stop her.

Before long, Arihant was slurring every other word and nodding off. Cam nodded at me and Mark, and stood. Mark flanked Arihant at his right, propping him up under his arm. I followed suit on the left side. We follow Cam to a private room behind the red floodlit bar. To everyone, it must appear like we’re graciously helping our debauched friend. The room is lined with royal purple velvet from top to bottom, accented with brushed gold baseboards and crown molding. Mark and I deposit Arihant on a single armchair with leather pincushions resembling Morpheus’s from The Matrix. From the shadows, a group of five men in tailored suits emerge. They approach Arihant, who by now is catatonic and slumped over the armrest. One man, the eldest, nods at Cam and hands her a briefcase. She returns the gesture and the men carry Arihant out of the room, leaving the three of us alone.

“Cam, what are they going to do—“ I begin.

She shushes me gently, placing her forefinger on my lip. She opens the briefcase, and I quickly estimate about twenty stacks of crisp Euros inside. I recognize the image of the Baroque arches on each note; one hundred.

I stifle a gasp, but my breathing quickens at the sight.

Cam grabs four stacks and hands them over to Mark. He takes them, stuffs them inside his blazer, and gives her a quick kiss on the mouth before taking off. Cam says nothing and divides another four stacks from the lot.

“Cam—“ I start again.

Before I know it, she stuffs her hand, along with the money, down the front of my jeans. She pushes me to the wall and I feel the soft velvet against my neck and the pressure of the money on my lower abdomen. Her thumb latches onto my panties and stretches them up, making it unbearable. Her lips graze against mine as she speaks.

“Are you in, or out?”

She continues to stroke her thumb against me, waiting.

“In,” I whisper, closing my eyes.

Fall tuition: check.


© 2014 Laura Ortega All Rights Reserved



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